Palestinian-American Etaf Rum’s debut novel tackles complex questions of women’s status in traditional Arab culture.
The year is 1990; the place, occupied Palestine. A teenage girl named Isra finds herself being visited by male suitors. Her parents are keen to marry her off, for girls are a burden, almost a curse on an Arab family. Isra finally agrees to marry Adam, who lives with his family in New York. Isra must face a new life, living with Adam's parents, the culturally traditional Fareeda and Khaled.
Her first job, once set up in the dismal basement of her in-laws, is to produce a son. Life becomes increasingly stressful as Isra, to her family’s disapproval and later outright hostility, gives birth to daughter after daughter, four in all. Not only is Isra isolated, forbidden to leave the house alone for fear of what the local Arab community might think, but she is also the victim of domestic violence. What makes the violence even more heinous is the fact that Fareeda and Khaled calmly accept the fact that their son, Adam, beats his wife, all under their own roof. Fareeda even gives Isra make-up lessons on how to cover the purple bruises.
A second timeline jumps ahead eighteen years, to 2018. Isra and Adam, we learn, have died in a car crash. Fareeda and Khaled are now looking after the four daughters, a task they have performed for the last decade. The eldest daughter, Deya, finds herself in the typical predicament of a young Arab woman. The pressure is on her to find a husband, get married and become a submissive wife. Deya resists and rebels against Fareeda's constant interventions, but fears she hasn't the courage to follow her own convictions, defy her grandparents and go to university.
Things reach a climax as the interweaving timelines reveal that Fareeda and Khaled have kept many secrets from Deya and her sisters. When Deya meets Fareeda's only daughter, Sarah, who ran away from home as a teenager, bringing shame upon the family, she learns a shocking truth about her parents’ marriage.
A Woman is No Man is a brave, honest novel that addresses serious issues of domestic violence, the status of women, the difficulties of living between two cultures and the trauma of having to leave your place of birth due to war and military occupation. Etaf Rum has written a compelling narrative, building up a harrowing portrait of a deeply unhappy family that at the same time reveals a rigidly conservative culture that is appalling for women, and not much better for men.
While it would be easy to make this a black and white story of good women and evil men, Etaf Rum takes a nuanced approach, explaining but not condoning the violent trap so many women find themselves in. Even some of the novel's worst characters – Fareeda, whose treatment of Isra is often callous; Adam, who constantly beats his wife – are sympathetically drawn. We are given back stories – often devastating - to help understand their behaviour.
This is a first novel by Etaf Rum, and a few small caveats must be mentioned. The dialogue can be lacklustre and pedestrian, and there are characters that lack definition. Sometimes alternating between the timelines of Isra and Deya, it's easy to forget where you are: both mother and daughter can appear almost identical. But these are small complaints in a novel that is extraordinarily brave in pulling back the veil on the hidden world of domestic violence and misery. Despite occasional clumsiness, A Woman is No Man is constantly absorbing.
An important book that breaks taboos.
A Woman is No Man, by Etaf Rum. Published by HarperCollins. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
American journalist Anand Giridharadas pulls back the veil on the world's rich and powerful, exposing a class of anti-democratic, self-serving elites and the courtiers that serve them.
In 2011 writer and former business consultant Anand Giridharadas was made a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, a prominent think tank. Giridharadas was a bit mystified, as the Aspen Institute only takes on proven entrepreneurs successful in the business world and he was not an entrepreneur. Nonetheless, you don't knock back invitations to rub shoulders with the rich and powerful at Aspen, and so he went.
Giridharadas would participate in four one-week sessions over two years where prominent business leaders attempted to solve the world's most intractable problems. He found himself making friends with the rich and powerful, enjoying the jet setting lifestyle. But eventually cracks started to appear. Troubling inconsistencies presented themselves. The rich made money by exploiting the poor, harming the environment and many other greedy and selfish actions. The people who were responsible for so many of the world's problems believed only they could fix them.
The result of Giridharadas' conflicted conscience is Winners Take All, an intellectually rigorous critique of powerful elites and the prevailing orthodoxy that business is better at solving problems than grass roots activism and politics. It also presents stunning insights into the psychology of the rich and powerful. They feel themselves to be victims, unfairly under attack from critics, when all they are trying to do is save the world - and get rich in the process. This sensitivity to criticism means anyone lobbying for their support must temper their language: appeals must be framed positively, with no mention of the ill effects their industries produce. The result is a small, elite group living in an intellectual bubble, sealed off from the world. As Giridharadas explains, they are globalists, shifting their money and resources wherever it will make the best returns, while the rest of the population are locals, loyal to place and community. A convincing argument is made for the success of Trump and Brexit: people voted against globalism, sick of being told what to do by freewheeling elites, and in favour of local values.
Winners Takes All is all the more compelling for being an insider's account. The book's main argument is that democratic politics – problem solving by the people, for the people – has been insidiously eroded by the growing power of a rich, distant, technocratic elite. Their power has been so complete that it has also changed our thinking. We now look at the world's problems and how to solve them through the prism of big business. Giridharadas explains this phenomenon – social, economic and political – in a language that is refreshingly direct and devoid of theory and jargon. It's probably the most important book you'll read this year.
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas.
Allen Lane $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Two passionate botanists marry and embark on a quest to preserve Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain.
When journalist and novelist Kate Legge was told by a girlfriend that her favourite place in the world was Cradle Mountain in north-west Tasmania, she made a memo to self: go see. Upon visiting the famous landmark, she was immediately struck by its awe inspiring beauty and entertained writing a fiction based around two of the mountain’s great pioneers, Kate Cowle and Gustav Weindorfer. This idea soon lost its appeal; Legge realised that Kate and Gustav deserved a direct biographical account, one that paid homage to their contribution.
Austrian born Gustav Weindorfer arrived in Melbourne in 1900. The following year, at a meeting of the Victorian Field Naturalists Club, he met Kate Cowle, a woman some 11 years his senior. Their shared enthusiasm for botany led to their marriage in 1906 and during their honeymoon at Mount Roland in Tasmania they both first glimpsed Mount Cradle, a place Legge describes as “…a sculpture garden of rock and cliff and tree.” The couple bought a farm in the nearby rural district of Kindred and made their first field trip to Cradle Mountain in 1909. Besides the intense study of the flora and fauna, the couple shared a passion to preserve the area as a national park and tourist spot. They purchased land in the valley of Cradle Mountain and built a guesthouse called Waldheim (meaning “home in the forest”).
The most tragic part of this story is Kate’s death, most likely from cancer, in 1916 (she was only 53 years old). Gustav was bereft. The two shared not only a deep love for each other, but a spiritual connection to the Tasmanian woodlands and its breathtaking scenery. Gustav pressed on, the uplifting Cradle Mountain environment sustaining him. There were unwanted difficulties, however. During the First World War, many locals made trouble for the Austrian born mountaineer, believing he was a spy. This hurt him deeply. The indignities of the war were endured and Gustav eventually returned to promoting Cradle Mountain as a tourist destination. He died in 1932, aged 58, of a heart attack.
Kate Legge has written a wonderfully energetic and bracing account of not only Gustav and Kate Weindorfer, but also a sumptuous natural history of a treasured Tasmanian landmark. Kindred is brilliantly researched, with Legge’s passion for her subject matter evident throughout the text. There is much to learn in its pages, not only about the width and breadth of our native bio-diversity, the magic inherent in our trees, plants and animals, but also the beginnings of Australia’s conservation movement and the great personalities that committed themselves to the task. A moving and inspiring story told with verve and affection.
Kindred: A Cradle Mountain Love Story, by Kate Legge. Published by Melbourne University Press. RRP: $44.99
Release date 5th March 2019
Review by Chris Saliba
When a mysterious virus hits Melbourne affecting only men and boys, the city is renamed Girltopia and the girls take charge. It's a new world, fresh with adventure, but also danger.
In the first instalment of the Girltopia trilogy, we learnt that a mysterious virus had hit Melbourne. It only affected men and boys, putting them completely out of action. Under emergency conditions, the city has now been renamed Girltopia and the women are in charge.
Twelve-year-old Clara Bloom has found herself at the centre of the action, along with her best friends Arabella and Izzy. Clara's mum, a respected doctor, is trying to find a cure for the virus. She works in the city's hospital and has access to level seven, a specialist ward surrounded in secrecy. Could something sinister be going on?
Clara has some secrets of her own. Her group of girlfriends are hiding Izzy's younger brother, Jack, in the roof of her house. For some reason, the virus hasn't affected him and they worry that he might be locked up or experimented on if found. The ruthless Sergeant Hamilton, newly promoted policewoman, is on their trail. There are rumours she is running interference on finding a cure and possibly doesn't like men.
As the four young people – Clara, Arabella, Izzy and Jack – try to make their way in a radically transformed city, they learn that this is indeed a brave new world. The subversive underground movement, the Girlhoods, are organising and agitating. Will life ever be the same again, will a cure ever be found?
Girl Boss is a winner. Hilary Rogers weaves exciting new details into this second novel, peppering the plot with liberal doses of suspense and hold-your-breath moments. There are also plenty of comic, tongue-in-cheek touches, such as the underground “Pink Market” and the Girlhoods' signature drink, “Girltopia Fizz”. There is even a Uber service called “Girlber”!
A fun filled follow-up, this good-natured pink dysptopia entertains right up to the last page.
Boss Girl (Girltopia #2), by Hilary Rogers. Published by Scholastic. RRP: $14.99
Release date 1st March
Review by Chris Saliba
“Passing” was practiced by some light skinned African-Americans during the early part of the twentieth century. It forms the basis of Nella Larsen's classic, Passing.
Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was an American novelist, of mixed race parentage. Her father was Afro-Caribbean and her mother a Danish immigrant. Larsen published two novels during her lifetime, Quicksand(1928) and Passing (1929). A plagiarism controversy in 1930, surrounding one of her short stories, “Sanctuary”, sapped Larsen of all literary creativity. She never published fiction again.
At a Chicago restaurant Irene Redfield runs into an old childhood friend she hasn’t seen in many years, Clare Kendry. Clare is described as stunningly beautiful, almost dangerously so. She has done well for herself, marrying a white man, Jack. There are serious problems for Clare, though, as she hasn’t told her husband – a racist – that she is actually black. If he were to find out, who knows what he would do?
Irene is also married to a white man, a doctor, who knows she is not white, although she will often “pass” for the sake of convenience – at restaurants and the theatre. Irene doesn’t want for material comforts. She has two maids, a nice house and lives elegantly. The revived friendship with Clare, however, is bringing her problems she doesn’t need. Clare keeps popping up, insisting she wants to accompany Irene on trips to Harlem as she misses the people of her own race. Irene sees this as dangerous. What if Clare’s husband, Jack, were to find out?
Clare’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and Irene does all she can to avoid her. Things come to a tragic head, however, at a New York party.
Passing tackles key American questions of race, status and class. Both women wish to be financially secure and respected, and the only true route to achieving such status is by “passing” as white. Yet this carries an enormous psychological toll. Both women suffer great anguish and discomfort. This is highlighted in the scene where Irene meets Clare’s husband, Jack, and must hold her tongue while he spouts all types of racist nonsense. Although we learn one sharp lesson from this, explicitly stated in the text: black people know more about whites than they know about them. They know how ignorant and short sighted whites are, unable to even pick up clues that would alert them to the fact these women are “passing”.
There are a few minor drawbacks with the text. Larsen writes in a stilted and self-conscious prose that can sometimes appear a little dated. Some sections can demand extra attention to figure out what is going on. That said, Passingis undoubtedly an important literary work and cultural document. It reveals the enormous stress and burden that race imposes on African-American citizens and the peril involved in negotiating that dangerous world of prejudice.
Passing, by Nella Larsen. Published by Restless Classics. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Two early novellas capture with clarity the often strange and cruel world of childhood.
Dutch author Gerard Reve (1923-2006) has only recently come to the attention of English readers. His 1947 novel The Evenings was translated to much acclaim in 2016. Now translator Sam Garrett brings two of Reve’s early novellas together in a single volume called Childhood.
In "Werther Nieland", eleven-year-old Elmer describes his neighbourhood world. He invents secret clubs, recruits then drops members, invents rudimentary science projects, helps friends (unsuccessfully) explode homemade bombs and fires malfunctioning guns at defenceless birds. It’s very much a boy’s world, full of cruelty, creativity, spontaneity and ritual. Elmer’s friendships with the boys Dirk, Werther and Maarten are as much about play as they are about competition and exploitation.
The second, shorter novella, "The Fall of the Boslowits", chronicles the cruel fate of the Boslowits family as the Germans occupy Amsterdam during the Second World War. Narrated by teenage family friend Simon, the Boslowits, whom we presume are Jewish, are already in a vulnerable position. The father, Hans, cannot walk and the son, Otto, has an intellectual disability. Slowly but surely the beatings and disappearances start, family assets are stripped, until the full nightmare reaches its ghastly conclusion.
Gerard Reve’s evocative language and extraordinary recall of the stranger details of childhood gives these two novellas a realism that is unerring and unforgettable.
Childhood, by Gerard Reeve. Pushkin Press. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Susan Orlean examines every aspect of the library in this entertaining and humane book.
On April 29, 1986, a terrible fire broke out at the Los Angeles Public Library. It caused great devastation. Some 400,000 books were destroyed; another 700,000 experienced smoke or water damage. It took the fire department seven hours to put out the flames. The rebuilding took years and cost millions of dollars.
Journalist and writer Susan Orlean stumbled across these facts only recently, amazed that the fire wasn’t better known. A reason could be that the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster occurred a few days before the library fire, eclipsing it in newsworthiness.
How did the fire start? To this day it remains a mystery. The prime suspect was an attractive young man, Harry Peak, a fantasist and compulsive liar who dreamed of being an actor. He was seen at the library on the day of the fire, and he even told friends he had lit it, but then chopped and changed his story so much it was impossible to know what to believe. He was imprisoned for three days, but then the charges were dropped as it was felt the case against him wouldn’t stand up in court.
The eccentric Harry Peak is just one character among many in this multi-faceted, kaleidoscope-like book that looks at the history, development and workings of the Los Angeles Library. Orlean also chronicles the broader story of the library, from its early American pioneers (there were many eccentrics and true originals in this class) to today, where the library incorporates the latest in technology and sometimes struggles to remain an institution that is open to all, including the city’s many homeless seeking warmth and comfort.
The Library Book is a deeply satisfying book, explaining in entertaining language every aspect of how a big, modern library works. It’s also a story with heart and soul, the library being a vital and humane place, somewhere to find refuge from a world of ceaseless troubles. It’s also a book that pays due homage to the work of the librarians, those precursors to the Google search engine, ever ready to answer questions.
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Atlantic $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Ben Okri addresses issues of political oppression and the meaning of life in this beautifully written novel.
In a yellow house a young boy named Mirababa is reading an ancient myth to his grandfather. Some time later the grandfather dies and the boy is visited by a group of old bards. The bards lead Mirababa into the forest. He is to be initiated as the new myth-maker.
In another house, a young man named Karnak is with his lover, Amalantis, a fearless woman who quests for the truth. One morning they hear three knocks at the door. When they open the door they see three men. The men take away Amalantis.
In alternating narratives, we follow Mirababa and Karnak’s differing paths. Mirababa experiences a spiritual journey, visiting a mysterious garden and finally becoming a boy-warrior, a semi-divine figure. Karnak suffers much as he tries to find Amalantis. The all-powerful Hierarchy, an omnipotent yet invisible government bureaucracy, ensures his search is frustrated. The Hierarchy has banned books. All the original myths have been rewritten. Even planting seeds, to grow plants and flowers, is forbidden.
Yet there is hope. Flyers are found flapping in the breeze with the slogan “Uprise!” on them. An image of a rose keeps appearing. People are starting to learn that they can be free. The boy-warrior, Mirababa, helps the people learn this.
Ben Okri’s new novel is a political allegory, or as Okri notes in the preface, “a fable of our times”. The novel describes an almost Orwellian world of state oppression, where reality is re-written as propaganda. The central idea of the story is that we are all born into a metaphorical prison. Life is a prison and our very thoughts perpetuate this imprisonment. But there is a way out. We can re-write our story and live a new reality, one of freedom.
While much of The Freedom Artist has a dystopian flavour, its poetic language and evocative imagery save it from being bleak. The book is organised into six parts and has the feel of a long, extended dream sequence. It’s a great pleasure to read. Okri explicitly avoids any didactic message and asks the reader to take their own meaning from the text. This may make the novel appear difficult or opaque, but that’s not the case. Okri’s vision sweeps you along and the big issues it addresses makes it a work of urgent contemplation.
A plaintive, poetic novel that has a soaring message of hope, despite its disturbing narrative.
The Freedom Artist, by Ben Okri. Published by Head of Zeus. RRP: $29.99
Released 29th January 2019
Review by Chris Saliba
David Sedaris’s new collection will thrill fans and non-fans alike.
Open any David Sedaris book and you know what you’re going to get: off beat observations, wacky overheard dialogue, briskly drawn portraits and plenty of Sedaris’s trademark wit. So with a new David Sedaris book, there’s minimal chance of disappointment.
In this new collection of sketches and essays, Sedaris concentrates mostly on his family – especially his sisters, with whom he seems to get along best. His father, now approaching his mid-nineties, also makes plenty of appearances. Deceased family members - his mother, who died thirty years ago, and his youngest sister, Tiffany, who committed suicide - also preoccupy a lot of Sedaris’s writing. Besides the family portraits, there are essays on politics, the mangling of the English language and the favourite expressions of angry car drivers.
Overall, the tone of the book is a kind of meditation on middle age, mixed with a gallows humour on the looming indignities of old age. There’s not a whole lot to look forward to, so you may as well laugh.
I finished Calypso in two days. It was so addictive I couldn’t stop reading. And I laughed out loud several times. Sedaris holds a mirror up to his life, warts and all, and it’s still a cathartic experience to live vicariously through his joys, anxieties and day-to-day struggles.
Calypso, by David Sedaris. Published by Little, Brown. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Normal People explores with superb precision the emotional complexity of an on-again, off-again relationship between two young people.
Irish writer Sally Rooney’s sudden fame seems too good to be true, especially considering she’s only twenty-seven years old. One is almost tempted to ignore all the hoopla. Her second novel, Normal People, has followed on quickly from her debut, Conversations With Friends.
Recently a reading copy of Normal People fell in my lap. Twenty pages in and I thought it was a bit slow. Despite this, I pressed on a bit further and soon found myself hooked. I didn’t want it to end.
The story concerns two university students, Marianne and Connell, and their on-again, off-again relationship. Both are navigating sex, friendships, study, school politics and careers. Marianne is complicated, with a troubled family history; she is perceived by her schoolmates as somewhere between awkward and freakish. She doesn’t know her place in the world, wonders if she’ll ever find it and borders on being masochistic. Connell is more “normal”, but as the novel progresses, we learn he has some serious mental health issues.
The novel is told episodically, with several months elapsing between chapters. Within the chapters the timelines jerk back and forth, detailing previous events then jumping forward. Marianne and Connell split up, start new relationships that fail, try to get back together, repeating this pattern over and over. They love each other, but somehow, due to their damaged natures, can’t maintain a normal relationship.
There are echoes of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in Normal People. Rooney writes in a simple, concise language, exploring the deeper recesses of the psyche with delicacy and a striking clarity. Her ability to capture the things that are left unsaid between people, the strange and indecipherable moods we all experience, is uncanny. Rooney sticks to what she knows – the domestic, university life, friendships – creating fiction that has the ring of truth.
There is a brittleness and sensitivity in Normal People that makes you feel like you are holding in your hands a rare glass or tea cup. You can’t help but care deeply for Rooney’s characters, sympathising with their struggles.
A work of surprising maturity and insight.
Normal People, by Sally Rooney. Published by Faber. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba